Serbia and Kosovo, November 2007
History as War by Other Means: Demographics as Destiny
November 30, 2007
On November 18, 2007, Hashim Thaci, the former leader of the Albanian Kosovars’ Kosovo Liberation Army, claimed victory in Kosovo’s parliamentary elections. Thaci has promised to declare independence for the Serbian province immediately after December 10, 2007, the deadline set by the United Nations for the conclusion of talks on the future status of the province. The United Nations and KFOR military forces (i.e., the NATO-led Kosovo force, mostly U.S., Russian, French, and British troops) have occupied Kosovo since 1999. The Serbs, although proposing broad autonomy for the province, have adamantly opposed secession.
The Serbs responded to Thaci’s imminent declaration of independence by warning the West that such a declaration would lead to new secessionist moves in other parts of the Balkans. “If the independence of Kosovo is recognized, it would not be the final stage of disintegration of the former Yugoslavia, but the first stage of new disintegration and secession in the Balkans,” said Serbia’s Kosovo minister, Slobodan Samardzic. Some analysts warn that a declaration of independence could have a domino effect, with Kosovo itself the first casualty as the Serbs in northern Kosovo break away. Other areas at risk are Macedonia, where a rebellion in 2001 by the country’s 25% Albanian minority was put down with Western mediation, and Bosnia, which is tenuously trying to hold together Serbian, Croat, and Muslim populations.
Goran is a good-hearted tool-and-die worker who has struggled to make a living and support his family in Serbia’s often problematic economy. “Jobs for Serbs are more important than Kosovo,” he told me. Goran is trying to emigrate to the U.S. or Canada.
Marko is a young and idealistic Serbian lawyer. About a year ago, at considerable risk to himself he traveled to Kosovo and tried to engage young Albanian Kosovars in a dialogue. He advocates independence for the province, a view he says only about 5% of Serbs openly espouse. Marko emphasizes the common humanity of Albanians and Serbs, but also the practical impossibility of absorbing two million Albanians into Serbia, a nation of seven million Serbs.
My Serbian landlord told me: “Serbs have no interest in living with Albanians. We regard them as a different category from us. But we feel they have come into our house.”
A cultured Serbian gentleman in his sixties told me that Serb politicians are in a quandary. It would be sure political death to advocate independence for Kosovo, but many Serb politicians recognize that independence may be a practical necessity.
In addition to talking to Serbs about Kosovo, I researched Kosovo on the Internet and in books I bought in a Belgrade bookstore. In few other regions of the world does the past so resonate into the present as in Kosovo. Yet there is little agreement about the past. As Tim Judah expressed it in his book Kosovo: War and Revenge, in Kosovo “history is war by other means.” For many Serbs, Kosovo is their ancestral homeland, a core part of their identity. It was in Kosovo that many of the first Serbian kingdoms arose; in Kosovo — on Kosovo Polye, the Field of Blackbirds — that the Serbs lost the Battle of Kosovo to the Turks in 1389, setting the stage for Turkish rule over the Serbs for nearly 500 years. It was in Kosovo that many of the Serbs’ most revered and beautiful Orthodox churches and monasteries are located. But the Albanian Kosovars claim deep historical roots in Kosovo as well, and assert that they have long been subjugated and ill treated by the Serbs.
“In the Balkans,” a Serbian lawyer told me, “nothing is black and white.” I am partial to the Serbs, but certainly it is impossible for an outsider to assign total blame or innocence to one side or the other in the Kosovo conflict, whether the events at issue are occurring today or occurred a hundred or five hundred years ago. One aspect of the conflict, however, stands out as nearly indisputable. The harsh truth is that demographic trends are working against the Serbs and have been for a century or more.
A hundred and twenty years ago, the Serbs made up perhaps half the population of Kosovo (the data is a little unclear). Scrolling forward in time, a 1948 census showed about 500,000 Albanians and 172,000 Serbs in Kosovo, a 68% to 22% ratio (there are also small numbers of other ethnic groups in Kosovo, such as gypsies); a 1991 census showed 1.6 million Albanians and 195,000 Serbs, a ratio of 82% to 10%; today, there are probably about 2 million Albanians and 150,000 Serbs, a ratio of approximately 90% to 6%. Some of the causes of the dispossession of the Serbs have been political. Tito, for example, encouraged Albanians from other countries to come into Kosovo and forbade Serbs who were forced out of the province from returning. But most of the population shift has arisen from different birth rates. It is rare for Serbs to have large families; a young Serbian friend I spoke with could not think of a single Serb family she knew that had more than three children, and most had only one or two. By contrast, the Albanian Kosovars, who still adhere to a social clan system, have large families, sometimes into the double digits. And so the Serbs have become a small minority in Kosovo, huddled together in enclaves and surrounded by a hostile majority population.
Analogies can be misleading, but it is hard not to see a parallel between the Serbs in Kosovo and European Americans in America. Just as Kosovo Polye, representing the Serbs’ willingness to die to preserve their independence and identity, may soon fall under the sovereignty of an independent Islamic Kosovo, so sometime in the not too distant future the Alamo, representing European Americans’ willingness to die to preserve their independence and identity, may fall under Mexican sovereignty, de facto if not de jure. And the endless ethnic conflicts between Albanians and Serbs in Kosovo could be replayed in conflicts between Mexicans and European Americans.
The Serbs today basically confront four options in Kosovo, and all of them are poisonously unpalatable. They can attempt to dispossess the Albanian Kosovars by force, as Milosevic did, setting off another phase of brutal wars in the Balkans; they can ignore the problem, while Albanian birth rates and tribal solidarity seal the Serbs’ fate; they can try to absorb the Albanians into Serbia, thus wiring in incessant ethnic conflict and watering down Serbian identity; or they can accede to Kosovo’s complete independence, losing thereby a sacred part of their history. Wise political leadership in Serbia a hundred years ago — or even fifty years ago — might have averted this crisis, but now it appears unavoidable. Is there any wise political leadership in the United States that can avert such a crisis in America fifty years from now? Or does any American political leader even care what happens to America fifty years from now?
Travis Woodson is an attorney practicing on the West Coast.
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